Master of Architecture candidate at the University of Washington. Spending October 2010 - March 2012 as a researcher at Kobe University on a Monbusho Fellowship, sponsored by the Japanese government. Researching the cultural and practical relationships between water and public space. Documenting research and reflections.

13 January 2011

Of Dogs and Demons

            In Dogs and Demons, Alex Kerr considers aspects of the paradoxical dualities that continue to mystify Western interpreters. By examining the construction industry, Kerr is able to tease out the pithy and disturbing issue of Japan’s relationship to modernization. Contemporary interpretations of ancient Japan often rest on the monk Kamo no Chomei’s Record of the Ten-foot Square Hut (1153-1216) (Kerr 38) and its image of the hermit living in a minimal dwelling, barely sheltered from inevitable waves of natural disasters. Kamo no Chomei’s response to the flimsiness of his dwelling is a philosophy of impermanence. People and their architecture fleet and fade but nature lives on. 
concrete reinforcing preventing potential erosion, Shodoshima

            Kerr’s perspective is that Japanese bureaucracy is sacrificing Japan’s traditional built environment as a way of spending allocated funds. “After the war, with the army and the zaibatsu discredited, politicians, the press, and the public consigned their fate to bureaucrats, allowing them near-dictatorial powers and asking no questions. For a while, the system worked reasonably well. But in the 1970s, things started to get out of hand…Agencies started multiplying…all dedicated to building more dams, more roads, more museums, more harbor landfill…” (Kerr 159).
            Regarding that philosophy of impermanence, Kerr asks, what are we to make of the systematic and pointless paving of all of modern Japan? Kerr points out that bureaucratic policy has supplied funds for the construction of roads, dams, erosion control, and land reclamation on a national scale. The funds must be spent or they will not only be lost but excluded from next year’s budget. So a project of modernization begun in a pre-industrial state has statistically continued for the last 5 decades, responding not to today’s demand but to the demands of the era in which the policy was written.
            How can a culture that eschews and celebrates impermanence, asymmetry, delicately composed raw materials and the like simultaneously fix in place the very landscape they cultrally acknowledge as shifting and changing via the Shinto belief system? How can they be so inflexible?
            Donald Richie, in his novel The Inland Sea, writes near the beginning of this damaging policy’s implementation. His goal as he wanders among the quiet islands between Honshu and Shikoku is not only to seek out what remains of pre-modern Japanese culture but also to find situations where he can escape the outsider’s sensation of “I” and “they.” Instead of comparing Japan as “was” vs “is”, he compares “East” vs “West.” He points out that Western mentality understands the individual as masked. We wear masks, our public persona. Aristotle would add that these masks conceal our ego and our daemon: our rational and irrational selves. But in Japan, sometimes people talk about a perspective in which things are more superficial: the known world is the visible, physical world and the un-plumed depths of the psyche do not figure into the worldview. Things pass and change, they can combine and recombine without a rational logic. They merely are.
            For example, in Western literature, a comparison between two dissimilar things needs a poetic device: metaphor, simile, synecdoche, hyperbole, et cetera. In Japanese literature, the device may be the haiku. Richie writes, “I do not know why. But it seems I am seeing two aspects of the same thing. A connection, hidden but certain, is there. As in haiku, two observations ordinarily thought incongruous join to reveal their single unity. Perhaps this is why the Japanese invented the haiku, simply to record this apprehension of similarity that I sense but cannot explain” (Richie 124). The way we relate dissimilar concepts belies our worldview. Richie is surmising that in the Japanese worldview, the two concepts are simply laid side by side.
            Since Japan’s debut on the world stage, philosophies and concepts have passed east and west, and noticeably hybridized into new and challenging ways of seeing the world. If Japan is the unique author of the haiku as a device for refusing to discretely relate dissimilar concepts (a strategy which elegantly allows the unstated, the unseen to swish for an instant between the hands before escaping below the surface) then perhaps it is the Japanese worldview that sometimes echoes through contemporary Western philosophy, such as when aesthetic philosopher Elizabeth Scarry argues for the supremacy of the simile over the metaphor. In The Body in Pain, she uses her preference for the simile to underscore her greater argument for a flexible worldview that fails to harden into unchanging arrangements. Using a simile, we can say “x is like y” rather than the more defining and strong metaphorical statement “x is y.” With a simile, two dissimilar things are pinned together, but needn’t replace one another.
             Deleuze and Guattari riff on perceptions of impermanence in A Thousand Plateaus. In the chapter “Treatise on Nomadology: The War Machine,” they explore two views of space: striated space and smooth space. The shifting, floating, superficial world of the haiku and the simile belong to smooth space. Returning to the original question of this essay, how can we then understand Japan’s demand to convert its entire nation into the literally striated space of rivers plugged by dams and hillsides held in place by concrete grids, and sandy beaches fixed against the pull and sway of the tides?
            Kerr offers two interpretations. First, the haiku: Japan has divorced herself from her pre-modern past. This past only emerges in support of national identity and tourism. Then, the metaphor: today’s Japan is the result of a campaign stretching back to the beginning of modernization in the Meiji era.
            With Commodore Perry’s arrival in 1868, Japan was wrenched from a private dream into the globalizing world. In the face of the shock, Kerr writes, “the slogan of Meiji-period modernizers was Wakon Yosai, ‘Japanese spirit, Western technology’” (Kerr 40). Kerr argues that what we see now in Japan is indeed Japanese spirit, quoting Donal Richie’s quip “what’s the difference between torturing a bonsai and torturing the landscape?” (Richie 37). The problem, Kerr implies, is that the ‘Japanese spirit’—really Japanese bureaucracy—drives too hard at a goal without reconsidering along the way. Acceptance of impermanence thus eludes even the mystical Japanese: in fact the idea of impermanence was an obsession barring a more stable and desireable state of Wa or peace; stasis. Comparing the environmental movements of Japan versus the U.S. further undermines Wakon Yosai because the influence of community groups in the U.S. over the last century have effectively recharted environmental policy while Japan charges ahead, Kerr says, a post-industrial state using pre-industrial strategy, failing to realize its mistakes.
            Inevitably, when you seek for something it isn’t there. Try and find the heart of the avant-garde in New York, the most experimental music in San Francisco, the best party in town: it isn’t there. It either just ended or it hasn’t begun, or else you simply aren’t invited. It’s only through an unsuspecting ramble through the rain shining streets of the great city does Harry Haller find the magical night café and the invitation to the underground party in Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf. So it is that a seeker must be more humble and flexible, open to chance and opportunity.
            Certainly, there is a building machine on auto-pilot at work in Japan. The projects cited by Kerr and visible to a naïve visitor like myself often fly in the face of sensitivity to tradition, context, environment and material choice. Kerr repeats, and it is true, when you visit a famous old place in Japan, you must carefully frame your shot to avoid the concrete culvert just to the side. At the same time, I love that people actually visit these old things on their weekends, and that some modes of Japanese life are very much alive and well. Also, as someone like photographer Toshio Shibata shows, there is a strange unsettling beauty in all that infrastructure.
Toshio Shibata,

            Is it fair to hold Japan to the same qualities of “modernity” that distinguish the West? Or is it fair to allow Japanese bureaucracy to wreck beautiful things without listening to citizens or foreigners? Is the wrecking and rebuilding something that’s deeply part of Japanese culture, embedded in Shintoism? Or is it a recently adopted strategy? And if its deeply embedded, does that make it admissible if it puts people and the environment in danger through pollution?
            Perhaps it is more fair to study individuals, their products, their relationship with the West and with modernity. Perhaps Kerr’s thesis is too generalizing and too much from a Western perspective. Or perhaps we can advance a more beautiful, careful, and respectful way to relate tradition to modernity, by looking closely at some successful cases.

12 January 2011

About Christmas

Christmas care package from mom and dad!
            Remembrance of Things Past or In Search of Lost Time opens with Marcel biting into a madeleine soaked in tea. This act conjures a forgotten memory of childhood. The taste of the cookie, like a magic potion, brings clearly into focus the very last time in which that combination of tastes had mingled on his tongue. Suddenly Marcel is a twelve-year-old boy downstairs in his aunt’s apartment. He’d rather stay inside and read books; his family is always sending him outside to play. He’d rather his mother coaxed him to sleep each night; instead he falls asleep alone.
             The novel takes place in and out of Paris: the metropolis is the center while th countryside is the periphery. Perhaps many identify with the moment of the madeleine because of its clear, original telling. While moments in which the past comes rushing over us unannounced are pleasantly overwhelming and even somewhat grounding, Proust has nothing on homesickness. The partial or fragmentary memories conjured by less obvious triggers can be even more surprising and moving.

            I was invited to a luncheon celebrating the end of the year. My host was a woman in her 60s who approaches her belief system in a flexible way. Racially Korean but born in Japan, she was raised Christian but later devoted herself to Buddhism. Each year she collects her best friends at her home for a lunch party that stretches on through the afternoon toward dinner. The living area, where we gathered, was made of two adjoining rooms connected by an opened sliding door. Of equal size, one room was “western style” with hard wood floors, table and chairs, a mahogany armoire, a small Christmas tree. The other room was “Japanese style” with tatami mats, a small table that was assembled just for the party. A shrine to the woman’s ancestors took up about a third of this small room. Seated on the floor, I was careful not to swing around too quickly for fear of knocking the decorations. 

            I met Bae-san at a weekend English workshop that I helped with, the weekend before Christmas. She sat in the front row, and she was the strongest student in the class, and very friendly. On the second day of the workshop she invited me to eat lunch with her and a few other students, and she told me about the process of making pickled plums. Seeing that I was a Christmas orphan, she invited me to her party as a gesture of goodwill.
            At her apartment, she skillfull entertained her guests by arranging a series of charades, moving the little group between the two rooms, now standing, now sitting on chairs, now kneeling on the floor. We began by chatting and eating while standing around a lady’s potluck featuring cold salads of various persuasions (from potato salad to sushi salad to a salad of tiny deep fried fish). Then we moved to the floor and played a traditional Korean game, when I had to make sure not to knock over the shrine. Next came tea and cakes on fancy English china, and finally caroling. Since I and my host were the only ones of the seven who spoke English, most of the carols were sung with their Japanese lyrics. We interspersed a song or two from the post war Japanese golden age of crooning, I think.

            At a certain point, between Deck the Halls and The First Noel, a song began that was sung in Japanese. I tried to recognize it but I hadn’t heard it before. Yet there was a little transition—neither a chorus nor a verse—that drew me in. It was only three notes together that formed the coincidence: it sounded for an instant just like “The Holly and the Ivy,” my favorite Christmas song. Suddenly I was sitting at the table in my parent’s house between my mom and dad and across from my sister, a little bored, listening to my dad talk about a patient’s heart trouble or skin trouble or earwax trouble. Christmas time, the 6-disc CD player randomly pulling from Christmas themed CDs. A green plate full of Kraft mac and cheese, frozen spinach, sausage with ketchup. I almost burst into tears. I didn’t want to cry for homesickness in front of these sweet ladies singing carols, maybe just for my benefit. Although I haven’t felt a persistent longing or depression, I was closer to tears during the holiday season. Its those little surprises that force and interior chain reaction of memory that pull me into nostalgia.
            After caroling, one of the ladies showed me how to make a crane out of origami. She explained the tradition: when someone is very sick, their friends get together and make 1000 cranes for his or her recovery. It isn’t enough to pray, she said, you have to do something: it is your actions that are important, not your thoughts. When I left, she made me take the cranes and the rest of the paper.

            Nostalgia is a mixture of pleasure and pain that tugs at me and Marcel. Living far away fro hom, it’s easy to look for familiarity. The broad face of my new friend and her extremely ladylike vivaciousness remind me of my grandmother. The intensely methodical style of a student at the school where I teach English makes me want to buy him a vocabulary calender, like the ones my Dad used to buy me every Christmas. Every night before I went to bed we would read a word or uncover a new fact together, until I was in high school and my schedule and adolescent spite terminated his ritual.
            I guess it’s nice to be so far away from home and from familiar things that I can really appreciate what I miss. 
Christmas dinner a few days after the party